Why do I suck so much at self-care and positivity?
March 12, 2017 12:57 PM   Subscribe

How do I get better at self-care and work towards more positivity in my life when it seems that innately I'm a cynical person? How do I do the things I know that I need to do to feel better physically and mentally when I struggle with believing I deserve to be kind to myself? If you're a survivor of depression or abuse how do you even start to build self-esteem?

My therapist and I are working on figuring out triggers, emotions, body sensations. All the basic 101 of feelings that I missed due to an extremely abusive childhood. And one thing that is proving to be a challenge and causing tons of problems and anxiety and communication between us is that even saying "I did ok" or "I am getting better" or if I make a mistake and don't respond with "sorry I'm stupid" I get a massive panic attack and immediately flip into hopelessness. My therapist has indicated that she wonders sometimes if I want to get better. My old therapist thought the same. I find this devastating to hear as that is all I want. So I have to suck it up and try to do this positivity thing which I know is vital to not living in the past. But have no idea how...

We've been emailing back and forth with me labeling what's a trigger and what's a feeling and then me trying to be positive about it but she keeps emailing back saying that the thing that I thought was my best huge effort at saying I'm ok at something still comes with either micro-expressions of abuse or negative things in it. For example, saying "It isn't me being hurt now" when triggered by generic child crying isn't the same as "I am safe" as a grounding technique. I also want to indicate I've asked her to help with this and she isn't criticizing in any way and logically I know that. However, internally it is making it very hard for me to communicate with anyone.

When being abused by men, and also abused by my mother, I was hurt any time I made a mistake (spilling food, getting one question wrong in homework, making noise, crying, not being perfect at something the first time, any hint of positive self-talk was met with shame for "bragging") I get really triggered when learning new things and not understanding perfectly. I also have a huge sense of shame if I struggle intellectually with something or do not even understand a word she uses even if I haven't heard it ever before.

I am also a chronic overthinker which is proving to be a big struggle in my life. I get caught in loops and over-analysing everything. Looking for abusive context which isn't there. I'm the type of person who rebuts ideas of "being safe and it never happening again because I'm an adult" with "no one can actually promise someone that they'll never be hurt again" or spends time analysing and getting frustrated that people don't see the lies our society tells survivors. Basically it was once said I would never be happy until I know why a spoon is called a spoon. Or who came up with the concept of corners. Someone hugged me the other day because I was having a down day and I immediately apologized. This ,while makes me lovely to listen to while ranting about the world and very empathic, is causing massive problems in my life. Healing from abuse involves things I don't understand like feelings and that icky stuff.

So I need to reframe my entire way of thinking and if I don't it is making my relationship with my therapist really messy. Where now I'm so triggered I'm afraid to see her or write her on a regularly basis. It is increasing the feelings of isolation that as a survivor of extreme abuse I already feel. I also struggle with physical problems but that's prolly a question for another week.

So can someone explain to me how they went about building self-care? My therapist says she chooses not to believe what other people think of her or care. I'd like that! How do I deal with the feelings of feeling I am going to be slaughtered or sexually abused if I tell myself anything good about myself? What is life like when you don't exact extreme judgement on yourself? How do you learn it is ok to ask questions? Ok not to know?

More importantly, and somewhat ironic, how do you make yourself stop overthinking?? Life would be so much easier if my brain didn't go over every situation looking for potential ways to blame myself for every mistake ever. A complicating factor is my brain is finding plenty of reasons in the world right now where there is real evidence that society doesn't care about assault survivors, children, queer people, trans people etc. As well since I identify as non-binary I feel on the outside of most resources online for assault survivors since I can never achieve being an empowered woman full so find some of the language used to teach self-esteem triggering despite being raised as a woman and thus directly experiencing the world that shames me for being fat, loud, non-feminine, daring to speak up about being hurt, etc.

I have to fix something and I can't even figure out how to start. My brain still makes me question if I'm not lying and just obviously crazy and was never abused despite being hospitalized for my overwhelming crippling PTSD and dissociative disorder. I need to stop questioning that and just accept and try to move on. Thanks for reading and I hope you can help. It is really making me question trying to get better when some days being alive feels like I'm breaking some abusive rule in the past.*

*not suicidal anymore...but apparently saying that suicide is your default setting isn't actually a positive phrase about yourself either

posted by kanata to Human Relations (38 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
This is all a belief of mine, not The Word. But ---

First, you actually are not overthinking. Your adrenal system is triggering a flight or fight response which is making your brain run down all the Terrible Things. But that is neitherthinking nor overthinking. It's a hyped-up engine revving your brain to Think Bad Things. I know this sounds pedantic but it's not...you need to learn that what you have (amazingly! Because you survived!) is you thinking, it is not. It is you as a child SURVIVING by creating a loop in your head.

This is not actually thinking on the present though. It's a spewing of thoughts about the present but the underlying "logic" is the past.

So in this old way of "thinking" you cannot really break free. You need to learn new ways.

My best suggestion is that you try to think new thoughts like "I am safe from that abuse" at first while either exercising to just short of breathless, or right after. This will confuse your brain (as your adrenaline is being spent) and give you some space.

The other thing is don't think about it. Just do it. Look in the mirror and say the words. You don't have to believe them and you don't have to pass out, just say things like "a mistake anyone could make" "I'm sorry, how are you?" Etc.

Just do nice things for yourself and don't stress about what kind of person you are or whatever. I mean...easier said than done but you /can/ just buy and heat up a yummy bowl of soup for yourself without making it a referendum on whether you deserve it.

Also, in interactions with others...turn the focus on them. Like this:
Old way: I'm sorry, I'm stupid
New way: I'm sorry...are you okay with this?

Old way: I suck at this
New way: how do you think this is going?

Hope that gives you some ideas.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:14 PM on March 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm sure there are other folks here who can address your questions better than I can .
I do want to say that you are already ahead of the game in that you are continuing to reach out for help in sorting all this out. Trust me--that is HUGE. So many people never get that far. Asking for help is hard.
I think that you must feel deep down that you are worth the hard work that you're doing--and I think that's the first step in learning how to treat yourself well.
I don't feel qualified to respond any more specifically. If an "across the internet" hug, hand squeeze, pat on the shoulder, etc is something you want as you continue to work on this, consider it sent.
posted by bookmammal at 1:15 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are you on medication?
posted by AFABulous at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2017

I'm on ADs, pain and sleep meds. I've been through the gamut over the years for both depression, anxiety, PTSD and cannot tolerate any meds that help anxiety. I do have ativan for the days when panic is so horrible that I can't leave the house though. Oh, also not a candidate for EMDR as too strong of a dissociative disorder indicates it would be risky to do.

Thanks warriorqueen. That actually gave me lots of ideas or helped me kind of get why I was upset and couldn't understand when my therapist pointed out that no one is born chronically suicidal. I never thought that it is something that is a product of abuse and not just my natural character.
posted by kanata at 2:16 PM on March 12, 2017

Sending you a hug and a few things I try to improve my self care: focus on what I can do in the situation, no matter how shitty it is, I can breathe deeply - in as much as I can, then more, and then out. I do this once. One breath. Then, if I can, do three more. If one is all you can do, fine. One day I hope to be able to breathe deeply like 15 times in a row when I'm stressed or ruminating! I find that connecting to my body, my breath, helps me stop thinking because to breathe this way takes all your effort. This is my current go to, and short term strategy.

When a particularly nasty thought comes, I try to focus on what I am grateful for in the situation. So for example, if you have a crazy boss who just threatened to fire you unjustly, you could think , well I am grateful for being paid by this job, or if it is unpaid, that I am grateful to have the chance to volunteer doing very meaningful work, or I am grateful that this job brought me to a cool city where I otherwise wouldn't be. It doesn't take away the shittiness of the situation - but by doing the breathing and voicing gratitude- it helps because I am adding two positive voices to mental loop instead of one negative voice. Hopefully I will pick up enough strategies to drown out the negative-anxiety loop, but this is all I can do now, and it is better than being helpless. For me, ymmv.

But yeah, you are doing the right thing by getting help, reaching out, and caring about yourself to want to do better. Wishing you the best.
posted by perrouno at 2:30 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Because the entire concept of self-care and positivity is victim-blaming, it's a way of making you responsible for your disease. If you can just think your way out of it with positive thoughts that makes it your "choice" to be sad because you're not "trying" hard enough to "choose happiness." It's disgusting and wrong.

Mental illness is an ILLNESS. We don't expect people with multiple sclerosis or heart disease or cancer to be able to treat their diseases with self-care and positive thinking. Your treatment should be the same.
posted by Violet Hour at 2:54 PM on March 12, 2017 [19 favorites]

I stink at writing about this, because I have trouble writing full stop. But I wanted to tell you that I hear you. I understand at least some of what you're going through, though my specific problems are different. I wish I had some coherent advice. I can only tell you some of what I did.

- I took medication. Lots of medication. I still take medication and always will.
- Therapy. I went to traditional therapy every week for 18 months. Telling me how I was wrong and that I needed to change my thoughts and self talk was unhelpful, because that wasn't the problem. I didn't know it at that point, but emotions and feelings that I couldn't deal with were the problem. Then a few years later my psych nurse managed to convince her job to let her do DBT based horse therapy, both group and individual. Horses are great as a non-judgemental mirror for emotions, and that helped. Accepting emotions without judgement and getting a toolkit to deal with them was far more useful to me, especially in the short term, than trying to fix the underlying cause.
- I keep on going. I know that there are times when I will make mistakes or lose ground, but I know guilt or anger with myself is going to make the situation worse. So I acknowledge it, do a bit of self-care or laugh at myself, and get back on track. I make no promises that I can't keep. I try to help other people when I can, partly because it is a reminder that I have value, whatever my flaws.

About suicide. I'm not suicidal anymore either, technically. I was talking with a friend who has bipolar the other day about suicide, because it is an incredible relief to be able to talk to another person who understands. Most people can't get over the cultural antipathy of just discussing it, or admitting that they've thought about it if they have. But she and I can just talk about it like it is a normal subject, because for us it is. We did realize that once you put suicide on the table as an option, you can't put it back in the box and pretend outrage anymore. And depending on one's life and situation it might be healthier to be rational about it than to keep it as a fantasy. Sometimes you feel as if the end is the only thing you have control over in your life. In truth, that is a rare situation, even when all other options are bad.

And I lost my train of thought, which is probably good. But my friend with bipolar, who has actually attempted suicide, is the most cheerful and optimistic and caring person I know. She is teaching me about hope and goodness, I am teaching her about shoes and personal finance.

Anyway. I suck at self-care and positivity too. Both of them can be learned, even if you don't have a talent for it. Start where you are, with other people's ideas if necessary even if they sound terrible, and work from there. It is ok to make mistakes. For a quick fix, I recommend something silly like finger painting, or filling cards with glitter and sending them to people who deserve it.
posted by monopas at 3:02 PM on March 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Music can be a self care tool. Start compiling a playlist of songs that make you feel happy and positive and worthwhile. Bonus if they make you want to dance around. It's a terrific combination of subliminal affirmation, distraction (that, for me anyway, puts overthinking on pause) and exercise.

Music also helps with other kinds of self care, e.g., if you have trouble getting motivated to take a shower or go for a walk or winding down enough to fall asleep. Creating a soundtrack for certain activities can make them less overwhelming, especially things that can take exactly one song, like brushing your teeth and flossing. I swear I fell asleep to the same two or three albums for years.

There are AskMe questions a plenty about music from different periods and/or for different moods, if you want suggestions.
posted by carmicha at 3:13 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

First, way to go for making it this far! You are alive, you are caring for yourself, you are trying to make your life better now than it has been in the past, and better in the future than it is now. That's a LOT!

I do not have a similar background of trauma, but I do have persistent anxiety and depresdion with extended periods of suicidality. One of the things that helps me most when I feel like I don't deserve kindness, love, and self-care is treating myself like I'm a stranger in a situation identical to mine. I am a caring and compassionate person; I would treat a stranger in my shoes SO MUCH BETTER than I ever want to treat myself. So when I think I don't deserve sleep, or painkiller, or food I like, or whatever, I ask myself if I would want that stranger to have it. If I would, I do it for myself. That way I don't have to decide what I deserve; it's about what any person deserves.

One thing you said that stuck out to me was that you are trying to be positive and reframe your thinking but your therapist is still pointing out these micro-expressions of abuse or negative things. I wonder if therapy based around a strengths perspective framing would be helpful to you. It seems like therapy for you has focused a lot on the skills you don't have and the things you do wrong. The fact is, you have a lot of very effective survival strategies; you're already showing you're a very strong person by reaching out and trying to change in order to make yourself happier. It's perfectly reasonable to look for a therapist that points out and praises the changes you're making.
posted by epj at 3:45 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I disagree with your therapist. I think he or she is speaking from the privilege that comes from not having been abused over a long period of time. Knowing what that kind of abuse is like means that saying "I am safe" feels nonsensical, or even cruel.

I'd like to support your perception that "I am safe" is not a good affirmation because it is not actually true. None of us knows if we are safe. At this moment, cancer cells are growing in my body. Will they be killed by my immune system? No one knows. At this moment, the factors leading to my death are being set in motion. What are they? No one knows. But they definitely exist.

Your affirmation "It isn't me being hurt now" is actually a true statement. No one knows if they will be hurt tomorrow, and people who have abused over a long period of time are just more aware of this than others.

I support you using the kind of affirmations that work for you, and not heaping more shame on you for being "bad at self-care". I think you're caring yourself in a way that feels true to you, and you should keep doing that!
posted by 3491again at 3:55 PM on March 12, 2017 [18 favorites]

So I need to reframe my entire way of thinking and if I don't it is making my relationship with my therapist really messy.
This is a huge red flag. The essence of modern therapy is that therapist offers unconditional positive regard - he or she accepts you for being exactly the way you are in the moment (including the part of you that wants to change AND the part of you that is struggling with change.)

It's possible that your therapist is a bad match for you. However, it is also possible that she doesn't understand how strongly your threat reactions are being triggered. There is also the possibility that this might be the place where you can experiment with having needs and being imperfect, letting it show (tell the therapist how you feel) and maybe, just maybe, this person will accept you. Again, if it doesn't work or if you just don't feel safe trying to talk about it, finding a more strength based therapist who can help you appreciate what you are already doing right, while still supporting you in getting better might work out better.
posted by metahawk at 4:33 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

My therapist has indicated that she wonders sometimes if I want to get better. My old therapist thought the same. I find this devastating to hear as that is all I want.

I don't know if I could tolerate being responded to in this way. It makes some difference whether you've been in therapy for years or for decades, I suppose. But I think it is terrible to be made afraid to tell the truth about how you feel because a therapist believes it is not a correct way to feel. In contemporary therapy the favored word seems to be "helpful" rather than "correct" but the judgment is the same. I think you should feel free to say true things to a therapist even if the fact that they are true does not immediately help you. (By true I mean the truth about your feelings -- "I feel like I'm going to be punished" can be a true fact even if you are absolutely not going to be punished and you know it.) Feeling stifled and like anything you say is wrong and like your very best is not good enough is terrible.

I am guessing that you're afraid to tell her you're afraid of her? if she knows that, it should make her reassess her approach and think about changing it. There is no possible bad reaction that would elicit that could be in any way your fault. however, I understand the prospect of her reacting badly would be frightening for that exact reason, if you like and trust her and want her to be good at this. If she already knows, I hope you can talk to her about it. on the one hand I think "enactments" are a bunch of Freudian nonsense, but on the other hand I see that you are paying a professional authority figure to help you and when she fails to help you, you take on all the burden of blame and shame for that failure in order to protect the image of her as benevolent and right. because it seems better or just more correct for you to be at fault than for her to be.

and even if that is nonsense, It ought to be possible to ask her to try something different if the approach she's taking isn't making you feel better over time.
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:37 PM on March 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've been following your comments for years now, kanata, and you have always been thoughtful, helpful, considerate, funny, and kind. Despite all you've gone through, you never fail to find a way to contribute here in a sincere and positive manner.

This isn't the solution for everything that's going in, but know that you're noticed and genuinely liked here on metafilter. And you really do make a difference here.
posted by mochapickle at 4:54 PM on March 12, 2017 [33 favorites]


From what you have said, your responses seem quite rational. It's quite sensible to be afraid of negative consequences when you've personally experienced those negative consequences over and over again. It's rational to analyze every bit of situation when doing so has kept you safe in the past. You seem like somebody who is disturbed by platitudes, not comforted by them, because you perceive the inherent lie more strongly than you do the comforting part, which again, not surprising given your history.

I see a few layers here. One, you are having these reactions, which again, seem perfectly sensible, or at a very minimum were sensible in your past. But you're also reacting negatively to having these reactions, no? I think a good first step might be working on accepting that these reactions are rational, that they are ok and completely understandable, and that most people who found themselves in your situation would react exactly the same way. These reactions may or may not be helping you at the moment, but they aren't a mystery and there's nothing weird or wrong with you for having them.
posted by zug at 5:53 PM on March 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

I agree that DBT could maybe be something for you to try. DBT is sort of like CBT plus mindfulness.

I would encourage you to meditate daily for awhile. It forces you into this moment only and may help with calming your built in survival strategies when you don't need them. I love headspace for this and it's free to try out and see if you like it.

I also love CBT and if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it. You can try reading David Burns feeling good if you don't want to jump straight to a CBT or DBT therapist.

I think you need lots of strategies to deal with all the things. I'm sorry you've had so many hard things. I hope some of this thread helps.
posted by Kalmya at 6:06 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

What your therapist is doing is pretty standard CBT - trying to help you substitute positive thoughts for negative ones. It works well for some, but there's some controversy about who it is effective for, and I think you are experiencing some of the problems of this technique. This is not your fault.

You title the post with a question - "Why do I suck so much at self care?" But I think you know the answer to that question. You suck at self care because that's what you were taught and those are the habits that have been beaten into you over the years. This doesn't mean you're stuck there, but my goodness, you've come so far and sometimes it's worth remembering where you started from, as opposed to how far you've got to go.

There are some alternate forms of therapy you might want to learn about. These are often grouped under the rubric of third wave behavior therapies, and the one I know the most about is ACT - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. These therapies incorporate mindfulness practices in various ways. One practice that I thought of when I read your post is to not think so much about changing your actual thoughts, but about changing your *relationship* to your thoughts. So that when one of those self-critical ones comes along, rather than believing it adn going down the spiral of self-blame and failure and all that, you find a way to say something like, "Oh, there's that harsh thought again! I see you. So I'm a failure? OK, got it - thanks for that" and then you move on, treating yourself as gently as you can.

If you're interested in this approach, a book that many people have found useful is "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris. He also has a lot of videos on Youtube, if you're interested in seeing how he presents this material. There are many other such practices and practitioners, but this might be a good place to start, if you're interested in seeing what's there.
posted by jasper411 at 6:09 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

The logical part of me wants to point out that my therapist isn't judging or even tones of "helpful advice but which really are victim blaming" don't come across from her. Believe me, my last therapist (that I just saw in the store and caused a panic attack 20 minutes ago!) did plenty of that and I ended up feeling that I was being silenced and that my suicide attempt was the sign that I am beyond help. I do not know if it is possible to have PTSD from a therapist but it is one of the issues that makes it hard to bring up feedback to her. Any time in the past I did with the ex it started out well and then to only end up with him being defensive and taking his issues out on me. We developed a weird relationship where I believe he saw so much of him in me that when I deviated off script he made me feel like I was failing.

The new therapist has been tremendously helpful to the point because her job ended at the non-profit she was volunteering her services with said I could transfer to her private practice for free if I wanted as it would be unethical for her to just drop me in the middle of trauma stuff. So if it came across wrong I apologize but it is me who actually wants to figure this out and thus I probably paint her with a lot of my child fear. I am afraid of her and have been since we first met but she also has a) diagnosed me with the correct dissociative disorder b)is outside of the mental health system who are true victim blamers c) helped me understand my anger at society is justified and d) is the only person who I've worked with who has managed to get me to say I was abused and may not be my fault (which is a big step for me)

Thanks for your advice, and I'll keep reading. But this is totally about me and how this looping into negativity is really impacting my life outside therapy as well. I'm tired of thinking and living in fear and while I have OPINIONS on POSITIVE psychology and CBT stuff due to past bad experiences I actually truly want to try this and try to not feel the need to beat myself up for hours because I made a typo on Mefi. I find it getting in the way of me learning things in life and also keeping me isolated as when it is really bad and I'm stuck in a negative loop of hating myself and fearing making a mistake I socially withdraw from everyone including online.
posted by kanata at 6:15 PM on March 12, 2017

I'd like to support your perception that "I am safe" is not a good affirmation because it is not actually true. None of us knows if we are safe.

I agree, it sounds like it might be more helpful for you to focus on things that are a little more provable and a little less trigger-y. I have been doing a lot of DBTish stuff and it's been helpful. I was mostly neglected and emotionally harassed, so I'm overcoming and working through different obstacles but it really helped for me to focus on Not Being Negative instead of being positive, and letting me sort of be "objective" about stuff I could be objective about. So instead of saying "I am safe" I'd say something like "I am not immediately in danger." Or instead of "I suck" it would be more like "Well that didn't go as well as it could have..." and look at situations not my baked-in hard-wiring (with the understanding that maybe some of that cound change).

Part of the aspect of my neglect was a lot of "Don't you DARE say you're not being treated well" so having to put a positive spin on things when I don't feel it is something I dig in and push back HARD on. But just ... not talking shit about myself is something I can do okay at.

So maybe skip being positive and just trying to recognize negative talk, mark it, and not have to DO anything about it. Put it in a "room for improvement" box or something, not a "I suck and I can't not suck" because that doesn't have a path TO anywhere else. Other people have good advice about a lot of other things but maybe just reframing this more not as being forced to be positive, but being aware of negative thoughts and letting them be, not having them start a shame spiral. I know it's hard, I think you're thinking the right thoughts about this.
posted by jessamyn at 6:16 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a very practical bit of advice. I am a 60-year-old retiree, grandmother, and abuse survivor. I am trying to live a more positive life and finally let go of some of the negative habits that have plagued me for years. About a month ago I spent the weekend with friends and they were using a deck of Osho Zen Tarot Cards. They had recently experienced the loss of a family member and were using the deck to focus their energy in a more positive manner. They drew one card every day, read the accompanying book of "explanation" and then journaled just a short paragraph of how it relates to their situation that particular day.

I am a very literal and pragmatic person, and rarely go in for any of this type of thing, but I immediately knew this would work for me. I bought the cards and book as soon as I got home, and I go through the process almost every day. It takes about five minutes, at the most, and has been hugely helpful. The little lessons are very short and focus on letting go of the negative, moving forward, and letting yourself just be.

You can memail me if you have any questions.
posted by raisingsand at 7:01 PM on March 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a legit keyboard again.

I hope my post didn't come across as blame-y; I do think insisting on positivity sucks as a cultural thing. I hope all the different responses are helpful.

To further share my opinion (opinion. only.) though, both PTSD and dissociative disorders are actually smart responses to crazy situations, that leave us feeling crazy when the crazy situation is over. (I am not trying to poke fingers at any mental illnesses and we all find what works for us, and drugs can work for some people with PTSD and DDNOS/DID and all those great things.) (Horse therapy sounds awesome to me too.)

For me anyway, though, a big part of healing has been to try to switch over to experiencing the present in the present. And that wasn't something that really could be handed to me. TOOLS could be, but I had to do it. I hope that is what you are asking about and that's where my answer is coming from.

And some of that does look like what people call self-care and positivity although for me I think they were more like "learning to take care of myself the way I would nearly any random stranger" and "don't assume everyone is your abuser coming to get you/try to get your body to believe that ha ha/try to get really smart parts of your brain that are expert in passivity to stop being passive/try to get really smart parts of your brain that sound exactly like your abusers yelling at you because those parts of your brain are trying to be powerful by saying the exact same old shit over again louder to stop being so mean/etc."

That doesn't mean pretending life is sunshine and roses but the fact is when your head contains children who really do think that one day everything is going to go back to 1979 (or whatever), sometimes doing the thing or saying the thing actually does help. This really is just my perspective but I think that you /can/ do this, you /are/ doing this, and collect all the amazing ideas you can and see what sticks.

raisingsand's post reminds me that we did the Fairy Tarot for a while. And we did new age trade shows. And went to see favourite authors. And took a law course. And took guitar lessons. And participated in slam poetry events. None of these things had anything directly to do with anything but they were brand new and relatively safe and more to the point...living life. I hope you can find some of those things too, although they could be more like - grow basil from seeds, doesn't have to be a huge thing.

No one knows if they will be hurt tomorrow, and people who have abused over a long period of time are just more aware of this than others.

You know this is true in some ways, and I spent over 5 years convincing myself that the world was a safer place than my fears, that people might not all be lousy... got pregnant, and then my daughter died because medical staff were having shitty days. And being lousy! That was horrid. Not safe! Actually kind of worse because my innocent, newborn daughter was the victim.

But I will say that didn't harm me in the same way as when I was a child, because I am not a child, my brain has grown and hardened, and I have different resources. I experienced pain and fear and yes, even terror, when my daughter was injured and dying, and devastation and loss and very specific awfulness, but. But. I could say what what happening, people around me believed me, and now when I say I have PTSD from that no one thinks I am making it up. There are even pictures. I got help faster and I was able to not be ashamed and negated daily by the same people who did that to me. And...that was huge in the face of the void.

So while the very literal words may not be accurate, and pick your mantra, the truth is that kanata you survived awful things and you will not have to survive the same way, the way where you are entirely, utterly alone because you are a child whose world is being defined daily by the adults around you, again, or at least, it is extremely unlikely while not in a war zone etc.

So I think it is okay to see if this therapist is right this - kindness to yourself. And maybe not, who knows. But I guess... for me, I assumed out of this post that the therapist was talking about this... thing... thing thing I know, I know some people with dissociative disorders don't know (because that is what the disordered part of the dissociative is), and that I think you, kanata, are right there to know which is -- welcome to the rest of your life, everyone. (So stupid, but words. They are limited.) It is okay to be - softer. It is okay not to judge yourself on yardstick of the abusive past.

It really can be amazing in that ordinary extraordinary way and yeah, it's hard, it sucks, but it doesn't have to be done on the knife's edge the way it did when you were growing up, where saying the wrong thing brought down absolute wrath from the very people you couldn't, at that time, get away from. It can be okay to try things so you aren't having the issues you want to not have.

I hope this is okay and that you ignore whatever doesn't resonate for you.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:26 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Two things that helped me
Externalising some thoughts/recognising which thoughts are remnants of the abuse and which are my own ("oh that's abuser's voice again - what does my voice say?")
Faking it til I made it. (What would I do to help dear friend feel loved? And then doing that thing for me)
posted by Chrysalis at 8:11 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

My therapist has indicated that she wonders sometimes if I want to get better.

I am really concerned about this. The last thing you need is your own therapist reflecting back self-criticism at you! Do you feel you would be able to tell her in the moment that "when you say what you just said, I feel criticized and threatened and the opposite of able to think positively"?

I have found it helpful to think of negative thoughts as essentially an old tape from a bad time. It's playing in my head, but it's not me and it's not speaking the truth, either. I can't make it go away (trying to shut it down by force actually gives it more strength and attention) but I can just let it drone on, knowing that it's got nothing to do with me or my present situation.
posted by praemunire at 8:58 PM on March 12, 2017

My therapist says she chooses not to believe what other people think of her or care.

Not having to care about what other people think seems like a form of privilege to me. One of the privileges enjoyed by people who have probably never experienced abuse.

Is there any way you can find another therapist? This one doesn't sound sufficiently empathic to me.
posted by ziggly at 9:21 PM on March 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Again, I framed this wrong. Warriorqueen has more of it. I struggle with doing practical things that are good for me like taking pain meds, not obsessing on the horrific news of today, getting out of my house, grounding etc. My therapist is a survivor herself and it is kind of amusing that people mention privilege without taking into account a) not everyone lives in big cities b) living in poverty c) been told by the people who cover therapy for poor people that it is "not healthy for me to talk about being abused with anyone" since I ended up in a psych hospital d) she has specific experience with my type of abuse and dissociative disorders. Excuse me for expressing frustration. I realize I should have stated more of that if I was going to include comments about her and just more frustrated myself that I don't have the resources here in my small town and have had to work hard to cobble together what I've had.

You guys have given me a lot of comments and I emailed my therapist with some of them and she agrees that what she was trying to get across isn't "just think happy thoughts all sunshine and rainbows and glitter" etc.. but that maybe discounting everything I do in favour of obsessing on the mistakes or criticizing myself constantly and saying I'm a bad survivor because I have horrific flashbacks still isn't doing anything to actually help heal. Thanks, as it gave me a way to reframe things so that ... internally... we get that she isn't saying if we just smiled everything would be ok (grew up with that) but that unless I express kindness to myself and try to at least be aware that these thoughts are stemming from the abuse and not just something natural for me. Thinking of treating myself as a stranger is something I've been trying but that just leads me to go "but that doesn't count me cause I'm of course completely different and defective". We are going to talk about it tomorrow more and her response to your questions helped open up a door to something I've never thought of and maybe I can move forward into not living with fear.

I apologize for framing this wrong. I was more seeking practical ways I can just convince myself to follow so I can stop hating myself so much. Ways to introduce self-care and methods of gaining self-esteem that have been tried and successful for other people. I try to read up on it and have read many books about all sorts of psychotherapy and been through a lot of therapy but find even the most basic guidelines of directions too hard or too overwhelming or too triggering (see mindfulness meditation which in the beginning proved very helpful but led to my last suicide attempt). For example, I need to make a schedule to put into place the pacing schedule that my occupational therapist suggested to help me learn to deal with fibro and my depression but I just can't begin because of feeling like I'll fail. That's kind of more of where I was trying to go. Again, sorry it didn't turn out that way and thanks for your help.
posted by kanata at 1:30 AM on March 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Kanata, thanks for asking this question! Look at the amazing answers here. They wouldn't exist without your question. ❤

You might find this article reassuring: Mindfulness Meditation and Trauma: Proceed With Caution. It sounds to me like you did mindfulness correctly and that's why it took you into a bad space — because there are lots of bad unhealed memories in there for real. Pulling back from it and trying other things that are a better fit right now is a wonderful approach.

I have some friends who describe their childhoods in ways that your question reminds me of, and they have gotten a lot out of Pete Walker's book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving - A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. The author is also a survivor.
posted by sadmadglad at 4:53 AM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I find that many of my neurotic tendencies - disassociation for example, can be bent towards better self care.

Classical psychology used to split up the personality into three parts, the ego, the id and the superego. So doing a little bit of this kind of splitting with disassociation can give you perspective on the lack of self care.

Your responsible self, the one that goes around reproaching you for not doing enough, and for being selfish etc. can be reasoned with or even bullied that selfcare for Kanata is a responsibility. You can say to yourself in a firm responsible parent voice, "If you don't feed Kanata on time she will fall to pieces and not be able to get anything done." "If you scold Kanata she will go all depressed and unmotivated." "If you stop to reproach yourself for not taking proper care of yourself you never will take proper care of yourself, so turn off that mental track and go make something nourishing to eat right now!"

You may have to cope with running two mental tracks, the firm and efficient one demanding you get up and get some nourishing food, and the panicky one that is screaming, "Can't! Can't! Hate this! Leave me alone!" but you can work so that you hear both voices internally simultaneously and accept both of them.

The voice that says, "Can't Can't! I'm bad! I'm so awful!" needs to be listened to. Yep. Not shut out. Then the other voice (disassociating like mad) will announce, "Kanata feels bad today. This could be because she hasn't eaten yet. How to I get Kanata to get out of bed and get some food?"

The voice that does the panicking and self recrimination needs to be listened to because it wasn't listened to in the past, and must be acknowledged. Yes, Kanata feels awful. Yes, Kanata wants to disappear. This is a sign that your responsible voice needs to comfort Kanata, not tell her she shouldn't feel that way. If Kanata is thinking "Can't, Can't, it's too much!" then responsible voice gets to say, "Okay, You don't have to."

I think you will find that while the inner voice that is the unhappy child sometimes feels like it is an overwhelming insatiably needy voracious creature that cannot be placated, it is in fact a distractable little child self and requires very little things to make it content, if you can only figure out what it needs. It seems insatiable or hopeless at times because it hasn't gotten very basic requirements met and has no understanding how to meet those requirements. It's kind of like if you have an almost two year old who needs dry pants. The task of meeting the need - laundry, toilet training, installing indoor plumbing, is way more than that almost-two year old is capable of, particularly if that almost two year old is paralyzed with the knowledge that she is stupid and bad and doing anything will result in screams and spanking.

But in fact all that almost two year old needs is a quick swipe with a warm wet washcloth and a pair of dry pants.

So meeting your self care needs is a matter of figuring out the actual root basic thing that is needed and not getting distracted into the idea that you might have to learn welding. That little self was confused out of learning how to step into a pair of dry pants by an adult who was freaking out for reasons that had nothing to do with the little self and the immediate problem at hand. That's what makes self-care so difficult. Instead of learning that wet pants require a tug on the hand of the adult in charge and stepping carefully one foot, then the other foot into the dry pants the child got overwhelmed with the adult's unrealistic expectations that the kid was supposed to responsibility for his or her emotional equilibrium. As a little kid you were learning that you were supposed to (magically?) calm and console an adult who couldn't stop themself from freaking out, as opposed to learning that damp pants means getting help and not tripping over the legs of your pants while stepping into them.

So if Kanata needs to do some selfcare one of the questions you can ask is, "What do I need?" The answer may be highly unhelpful. "I don't wanna!" or "I wish I was dead!!" so then you ask a bit more specifically, "If I don't wanna, what do I wanna do instead?" or "If I wish I was dead, what do I want to avoid by being dead?" With luck this gentle and affectionate questioning will get you to, "I don't wanna go to work! Everybody hates me! I'm scared!!" at which point you know what you need to do is take steps to make yourself un-scared, whatever that would require you to do. As an adult, you know that some of the time Kanata's fears may be based on what was very likely to happen then, rather than what is less likely to happen now, so you can doing things like call a co-worker; If they hate you they will scream at you over the phone but you can hang up on them, so it is not too scary. If they don't hate you they will say, "Oh hi, Kanata, what's up?" at which point you can say, "Shall I pick up coffee at Timmies on my way in?" and in both cases you get the information you need to either refuse to ever, ever go back to work there again, as it is a hostile place, or to feel safe enough to go back to work.

Remember you never have to justify your feelings. Feelings are. They are like the fact that down is the opposite of up. You can be confused about your feelings - "I feel something big! And I don't know what it is! I feel like I'm going to break!"but you are still feeling them, and it is reasonable to be confused.

It is also okay to have negative feelings and to want to be having the negative feelings. So you might feel angry and not want to feel peaceable enough to do housework or other tasks. Right then you need to feel angry. You won't always want to change the way you feel. You might want to experience it instead. A lot of the time the root feelings behind things are simple needs. Fear might really be hunger, in the morning when you get scared to go to work. Anger might really be anger, but it also might be the need to move and run and shout and work hard. Anger might be partially boredom. Anger might be your predatory instinct wanting, as an ominivore, to go out, hunt down something helpless and small and turn it into a source of protein. Or anger might be fear. Or all of those things. So you ask, what do I want to do with this anger? I have anger. Do I want to use it as a tool to fight back against people who threaten me? Do I want to use it as a creative impulse and write about abuse as an advocate? Do I want to just jump up and down and scream? Okay, how can I do that? Then you get to enjoy your anger and tear out the broken kitchen cupboard and smash the damn thing to pieces, or you get to write a truly vicious letter, or you get to take a skipping rope to the gym and jump up and down while shouting.

That's all self care, figuring out what the emotions are and accepting them and figuring out how best to use them.

One useful tool for self care is, "I just have to..." Let's say you are a ball of anxiety because you need to do laundry. The job seems insurmountable, and that in turn is bringing down a load of self reproach - How can you not even be able to do laundry? Are you that dirty? etc. brutal et cetera. Well, you tell yourself you don't have to do laundry. You are too upset to do laundry. You just have to pick up the socks you took off last night and drop them in the laundry basket/hamper/largest loose pile of dirty laundry in the corner.

When you try to motivate yourself to do self care and are running up against it being hard it is often because there is a huge amount of anxiety, so the simple thought of doing laundry (an example) tips you into an anxiety attack. Little Kanata was not allowed to want her laundry done. She was not allowed to try and wash her own clothes in the sink. Little Kanata was BAD if she made any demands or requests or had an desires or hopes or needs. So you go back to when things went wrong, back to when little Kanata was a pre-schooler, and assign the kind of tasks you would assign a pre-schooler. "It's okay, Sugar, no need for a meltdown. You won't get in trouble. I won't be mad. You can pick up your socks, uh-huh, you can do it. Drop them in the basket now. Good girl!"

You may have been mother's Bad Girl, but you are Kanata's Good Girl now, the secret inner little person that it is your privilege to cherish and indulge and comfort and reassure.

Sure, it's silly, but the part of your brain that is mostly non-verbal and that deals with emotions will respond to this type of loving self talk, and loving understanding. You have the responsibility and privilege to look after. You get to take on as many roles as you want to. You get to be the Good Mother Kanata Was Supposed to Have. And you are the best friend that Kanata didn't find, and all the other roles that go into the complexity of being a person.

Another thing to work with is the, "I'm sorry, I'm stupid." Guess what. You are stupid! Yep. We are all stupid! We all make tons and tons of mistakes and say tons and tons of stupid things and get things wrong. If you are breathing you are doing stupid things. It's inescapable. Nobody has the perspective and knowledge not to do stupid things. Human beings are stupid. I'm stupid, your parents are stupid, your therapist is stupid. Einstein was stupid. So go ahead and say, "I'm sorry, I'm stupid." Because it is not only okay to be stupid, it's great to be stupid! Stupid is part of those traits that make you loveable and worth doing things for. Kids are the most stupid people because they have the least knowledge and the fewest number of skills. They are also the most valuable and precious people, the ones that are most likely to trigger a rush into a burning building instinctively to save them. So no problem, you can say it "Sorry, I'm stupid" and then remind yourself that you have a right to be stupid, and that anyone who tried to make you perfect and told you that you shouldn't be stupid (human, a kid, valuable) was being much more stupid than you were.

So make a mistake, and respond "My bad!" or "Shit, sorry, no, that's wrong" or "I'm sorry, I'm stupid". It is better to be stupid and make mistakes than to be paralyzed and not do anything good. Be proud of being stupid! Admit to being stupid. Everyone else who gets love and respect and support is stupid too. It doesn't mean you don't deserve respect, or that you're not right some of the time. It means that you are smart enough to consider that you could be wrong, that you could make a mistake. How much worse to be someone who tries to maintain the fiction that they are not stupid, not wrong, and never make a mistake, and then project those things onto someone else and punish them for it!
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:39 AM on March 13, 2017 [25 favorites]

In line with the people who've talked about how Tarot has helped them, my best friend has become the I Ching over the years. Definitely the full Wilhelm and Baynes translation, by the way. Don't settle for less. The way I use it is just as a "picture for now". What's great about it is that it combines wisdom and constant change. Nothing is all bad; nothing is all good. With all the possible combinations, it's rare to get the same read unless you use it regularly over a period of years, which I have. At first the damn thing freaked me out when I would get "negative" reads. But in time, I came to understand it as a sort of wise third party, and, since I'm the one interpreting, I'm the one bringing meaning to it... thus I have value as an interpreter. That helped my self-esteem immensely, and in a healthy way, since the I Ching is quite balanced. Does that make sense? It's long-term, because it really does throw you for a loop at times, which is why it's good to set that boundary of "this read is for the present moment", as in, "it's going to change and I will see what that means." Over the long term you start to get the hang of it, and thus, of yourself. And you start to realize that it's genuine wisdom, as in, it's not abusive, but it is very good at pointing fingers at abusiveness.

I'm quite good at being cynical too, which comes through on MeFi at times. Heh. Learning not to hate myself has largely gone through reading a whole bunch of philosophy, mythology, belief systems, etc. and coming out of it with my own understanding of what is commonly held as valuable by human beings. And generally that boils down to a fundamental respect of and empathy for each of us, ourselves included. How do we know if we're that sort of person? I've found this quite meaningful, from hexagram 20, line 3: "This is the place of transition. We no longer look outward to receive pictures that are more or less limited and confused, but direct contemplation upon ourselves in order to find a guideline for our decisions. This self-contemplation means the overcoming of naive egotism in the person who sees everything solely from their own standpoint. They begin to reflect and in this way acquires objectivity. However, self-knowledge does not mean preoccupation with one's own thoughts; rather, it means concern about the effects one creates. It is only the effects our lives produce that give us the right to judge whether what we have done means progress or regression."

Even being surrounded by abusive people will bring out reflections of our true selves – for instance, one thing I've repeated over the years to my therapist, that she brings up occasionally because of that, is "even people who treat me like crap, trust me." They do not carry incorrigible damage from my interactions with them. I cannot say the same for myself with regards to their behavior, and here's another key: they do not care that they've hurt me. Or rather, they do, but it makes them sadistically pleased. If you care enough to be hard on yourself for hurting others, if you are not happy when others are hurt, you are an empathetic person.

Another thing to try – sports have always been very helpful for me. It's not about competing against others or achieving goals set by others, but about enjoying something and improving at it. Whatever it is, you'll get better at it, and eventually truly want to do it. You can reach a skill level where you might feel cruddy some days, but can think back to when you started out and couldn't even make it a block, for instance. Like, yesterday I ran my second 10K, had to walk three times during it for about 300 meters all told, had a "slow" time (1h09m), but hey whoa – I made it ten kilometers! A year ago I couldn't run 200 meters! (seriously, yes, hehe.) As with all things YMMV. The key is doing something you enjoy. Don't be tempted by the goals and standards of others. As another example, I run alone. Partly because I want it to be my thing; something no one else can stick their nose in. But I also like doing occasional races because I get to be part of a bunch of other people doing their thing.

That in turn helps when other "omigod I suck" stuff comes up. Because you've now trained your brain to realize that sometimes it overcorrects, and that's okay, because it's part of yourself that wants to do things well. You can now point to things and say, "hey look! We still did Thing!"
posted by fraula at 9:33 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I am one of the people for whom CBT does not work. ACT has been much better in terms of getting me functioning most of the time, instead of running myself into the ground the having 'episodes' where I am totally nonfunctional.

So tools my therapist and I worked on:

: yes, the future is unpredictable, but how is this thought helping me? Right now, in this moment, I am safe/cared for/just super hungry/triggered and experiencing adrenaline overload/sad. I can feel those things and also still have a shower/eat a thing that might just be a meal replacement shake but it is a thing/snuggle into a blanket fort/meditate on my body
: where I can I switch 'sorry' to 'thank you', so instead of always apologising to my friends for being a shittruck, I say 'thank you for sitting with me while I flipped out' or 'thank you for being my friend' or 'I really value your time'
: when I have a good day I prepare for the bad, basically, so I prep easy food, write, do work things, so on bad days I can hibernate, I can just organise my files, I can stare at youtube videos
: I accept that I will have meltdowns and get overloaded, this is a function of both the PTSD, the body I have, the brain I have, and the life I have chosen, and this is shitty but also not a reflection of some essential problem with me
: I recognise the ways these traits have helped me survive, and get through things, even though they are now ways too prominent (like someone who lifts too much and loses functionality, or cycles too much and fucks up their knees - the actions aren't the problem, the intensity is) - hyperarousal has kept me safe sometimes, disassociation protects me sometimes, it's just they don't help much when I nearly throw myself out of bed because my cat booped my nose, or I disassociate from good feelings.

I am still in therapy, I take my meds, I have bad days and good days. But I personally find a lot more value in seeing myself enduring mud slung by bad old voices and thought patterns, then creating new ones from the mess, than trying to reprogram my whole brain from scratch.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:05 PM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

My therapist has indicated that she wonders sometimes if I want to get better

Yeah, no. Having trauma reactions is not the same as not wanting to get better. I guess you could talk to her about whether you should be doing something else treatment-wise or medication-wise for your trauma stress.

do not know if it is possible to have PTSD from a therapist but


Maybe she's fine? But as someone with a similar history, I don't always know when I'm being mistreated and have stayed with shitty therapists far, FAR longer than I should have. I'd go. People can be bad at their jobs, including people who have special training with your issues. Those credentials don't mean she's good at it or right for you. You need what Carl Rogers calls "unconditional positive regard" from a therapist, and that is not it.
posted by listen, lady at 5:29 PM on March 13, 2017

I am afraid of her and have been since we first met but

Then you are probably reenacting abusive and traumatic past events and relationships with her involuntarily. it sounds like you're being retraumatized by the therapy & it's reducing any effectiveness.

PS. on the one hand I think "enactments" are a bunch of Freudian nonsense

MOST therapists, especially relational, look for transference & reenactments as part of the work.
posted by listen, lady at 5:33 PM on March 13, 2017

Thanks, everyone. Your suggestions and advice helped open doors in therapy yesterday and we were able to figure out there is a communication issue around the whole positivity thing that came across confusing to me. As well, it led to me being brave enough to give her feedback about how the things that she says that sound like my former therapist are very triggering and had led me to think she would end up the same as him. And she discussed the "not wanting to get better" thing and we discussed at length at what she meant and how it made me feel. Then we realised the aforementioned communication problem is probably what is behind people saying that to me and that actually the things that are classified as "resistance" that I do are actually because of difference in communication. Hard to explain.

I really appreciate the practical advice and I am working this week on taking my pain medication even if I believe I don't deserve it cause WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD and she suggested I try getting back into my art and if I make a mistake not destroy the whole piece but just try to tolerate it and see if it is truly the END OF THE WORLD as my brain thinks it is. She pointed out that if I can give an entire chicken to my neighbour when he mentions he hasn't eaten in a few days because he is out of money and not judge him then maybe I should extend that same kindness to myself and eat when I want and take medication that has been prescribed to help me. Which I think is so similar to what you people suggested. Don't hold a trial in my head every time I go to eat or take meds and use the abusers as the jury. And take other's advice that I don't want to be all sunshine and lollipops and sparkles because that is just me reenacting my unhealthy parent but I don't want to be doom and gloom and feel like I deserve to die simply because I spilt something. So thank you. I'm sure I'll be back to post more how do humans work questions since I wasn't really raised as one.
posted by kanata at 6:48 PM on March 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hey-- belated here. I have no idea what you're going through. You seem like a really strong person who is trying really hard to get better.

I have a suggestion for you I haven't seen on here yet. It really helped when I was in a pretty gnarly months-long anxiety-depression spiral. I have no idea if this is CBT or ACT or whatever-- but the "sub a positive one for a negative one" or "think about things to be grateful for" don't work for me AT ALL when I am mentally unwell (like, they seem laughably impossible, as they do to you, apparently). But this one does help.

I love public radio and podcasts. The exercise was (trick?)-- to think of these unwanted negative thoughts as shows on NPR. I could leave them on, whatever, I just had to name the show (my therapist made me actually write them out, which was dorky and embarrassing, but did help spot patterns in my hateful self-talk more easily).

Like-- it's 11 AM, time for "Imposter Syndrome Hourly: Who Does She Think She Is?" or "the Everyone Hates Me and is Only Pretending to Care with Terry Gross at 10" or "Breaking News: ThirstforSalt is going to stay in this hole of darkness forever." The key was to actually name each "program" (aka chronic abusive thought).

It was kind of fun and funny and write tabloidy headlines, and it kind of takes some of the pressure to "stay positive" or "not think your thoughts" or "be mindful" or whatever out of it. I still do this when recurring "shows" pop up and it really puts the brakes on the downward spiral just to say, "oh-- the Everyone Hates Me show again? Is there a way for me to turn this thing off?". It turns off on its own after that, kind of.

You could try?
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:24 AM on March 15, 2017 [15 favorites]

This might go under Jane the Brown's "Dissociation for Self Care" guidebook.
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:26 AM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

she suggested I try getting back into my art and if I make a mistake not destroy the whole piece but just try to tolerate it and see if it is truly the END OF THE WORLD as my brain thinks it is

YES yes yes. Do this, if you can.

If it helps, I don't think ANYONE, whether depressed, anxious, or neither, can see the true value of something they have created, or are working on, straight away.

Sometimes I'm feeling really sad or angry, I start a piece of work and think omg this SUCKS, but it's more hassle to delete it than just leave it on my computer, then I come back later (days, months, sometimes years) and realise it's... actually not bad. I mean on the flipside when I'm feeling good I might create something and only realise the morning after that it's not actually the greatest thing ever made, but yknow :)

What I mean is, make things, keep them, and then go back to them later, deleting/destroying is banned! Think of it as a little pick-n-mix for your future self - some they will like, some not, lets see!
posted by greenish at 9:31 AM on March 15, 2017

Regarding beating yourself up mentally if you make a typo - perfectionism is beastly. The thing to do is decide which typo you will deliberately put into the post. Let's see. What would drive my mother stark raving mad? Hmm.... I think I will refer to "the hoi polloi". THAT should leave her gibbering, if she actually ever saw my post. And it will flush out any nasty horrible people on the forum too. So then you wait for the torrent of mean e-mails and posts lecturing you on your wrong usage and make a little list, or block those people, because they are over-controlling, inflexible people. Excellent! Or if by chance nobody says anything, well, perhaps the forum you posted in is one that recognizes that people are not perfect and can cope with it.

Regarding your art and destroying it because it's awful, it's horrible, you can never do anything that is any good!! Assign yourself one day to do something mediocre. Write a mediocre story or do a mediocre drawing. If you write a good or incredible story you failed. If you do a fantastic drawing yo failed. Deliberately do something substandard or wrong. I will draw this angel striking a mountain with lightening, but I won't even try to get her feet in proportion. I struggle to draw realistic feet so this time I will do the best I can in the rest of the drawing - but I will make her feet different sizes and give her two left feet as well.

This is a way to desensitize yourself to the feeling that you have to be perfect or shouldn't try at all. Similarly, you can take a photocopy of a drawing you made and deliberately wreck it - but in a kind manner. Don't tear it up and curse yourself for being a fraud. Hand your avenging angel flying from the mountain a cup of tea, wooly socks to keep her feet warm and a couple of angel puppies racing after her. Draw an airplane in the background which is the airplane she is going to get on after striking the mountain down, and go off to Cuba for a beach vacation...

This will help you look at the finished drawing you photocopies with a less critical eye. It's a process, not something you have to succeed at or you are a failure. Drawing is not so much about the end result, as the process and the development that goes on while you are drawing.

The exercises I am suggesting are silly and dumb but the purpose is to help you take your art lightly and be prepared to think about it without anxiety. You're not defacing your art or eradicating it, you're exploring another dimension of it in a way that keeps perfect from being the only desired result.

Of course I wrote as if you draw rather than any other art, but the same thing works for other art forms that drawing. If you are writing you can save a second copy to make edits, adapting the idea to whatever medium you are working with.
posted by Jane the Brown at 11:40 AM on March 15, 2017

One of the things, along these lines that was helpful for me with recrimination was realizing that in a non-abusive environment, bad things can happen without some worse thing happening. So like... when I was a kid you'd break a glass or something and one parent or another would FLIP OUT; at the very least you'd get yelled at or get in trouble (my poor high strung stupid parents, they sucked and were probably, sadly, doing the best they could). However in grownupland where you are the only person managing your stuff (and even in the larger world where most people don't act like total shitheels, a lot of times) a bad thing can happen and... it ends there.

So like for a long time every time I'd break a glass or something I'd be waiting for the NEXT shitty part of that interaction. The bad part wasn't the broken glass, it was the dreading the worse part, coming next. And sometimes I'd fill IN that worse part "Hey you dummy, why can't you take care of things? You are terrible at being alive." (always in some version of my mother's voice, god who yells at a child like that?) It took me forever, decades, to realize that sometimes one bad thing is just started and finished within that event. And you can say "Huh, I'll be more careful next time. Time to clean this up. Too bad, I liked that glass" and move on. You can not like your art and not have to destroy it. Take your meds even if you don't feel deserving. And that sense of feeling safe that a bad thing can happen and only you are responsible for meting out "consequences" is something I like to try to think about when I think about safety.

Because I don't feel safe. I have a terrible startle reflex and I don't trust people not to hurt me even though in my grownup life they almost never do. But I trust myself not to make it worse.
posted by jessamyn at 3:14 PM on March 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

A little about me so you know where I’m coming from: I have Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Mood Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (because I have symptoms of several of the Bipolar disorders, but don’t fit entirely into any one of them). I’ve been in and out of therapy for more than 25 years, and on and off meds for more than 20. My current meds include two mood stabilizers, an anxyolitic, and a benzodiazepine.

I’ve struggled a lot over the years with many of the same issues you’re having. Miserable self-esteem. Negativity and cynicism. Surviving depression and abuse. Triggers. Panic attacks. Feeling unsafe. Pathological perfectionism. Over-thinking and over-analyzing everything. Being utterly terrified of making a mistake, never mind actually failing. Here are some of the things that have helped me.

My newest coping mechanism is one my therapist strongly, maybe even emphatically, suggested just a few months ago. She recommended I undertake a creative hobby with a tangible output, so I had a physical thing to concentrate on that would occupy my mind. The underlying theory here is that if I focus on this I can’t obsess about that. She suggested Pinterest as a starting place for ideas. I spent probably five or six hours that day on Pinterest, looking for anything that looked both doable and cheap. A few days later, I visited family and asked my mother for ideas, since she’s one of the most creative people I know.

Mama taught me how to do English paper piecing so I can make quilts, pillows, purses, all manner of fabric crafts. It’s my new obsession; I love it. I’m working with hexagons – or hexies - since they’re so versatile, and probably have a good 800 sewn so far. The first project I’m going to finish is one I hadn’t even thought of when I started out – a decorative pillow for my daughter’s bed.

You’d think my perfectionism would rear its ugly head with arts and crafts, and it tries to now and again. However, I can fight it back a couple different ways. First, perfect is boring. I don’t want my projects to be boring. My paper flowers are fun and whimsical. My initial letters are colorful and well thought out. My hexies are as good as they need to be. Which would you rather own, one of a million perfect, mass-produced bed-in-a-bag quilts, or one that was hand-crafted but may have a few quirks?

Second is a phrase I came up with when I was writing an article on how to make the hexies: Imperfection is inflection. Each of us is imperfect in our own way; that’s what makes us unique and gives us our own voice. One of my biggest challenges with the hexies, for example is that I can’t count to two. Seriously. I want to do two stitches in several places, and I put one, or three, or even four, because I can’t remember if I’ve only done one or not. That’s just one minor thing that makes my hexies unique.

Another means of helping me deal with my demons is 7 Cups of Tea. 7 Cups “is an on-demand emotional health and well-being service. Our bridging technology anonymously & securely connects real people to real listeners in one-on-one chat.” It’s a peer support network. The Listeners are trained to be sounding boards who can help you figure out how best to deal with whatever’s going on in your head at the moment. Listeners were members first; they understand where the members are coming from because they’ve been there.

If you don’t want to talk one-on-one, 7 Cups has other areas that can offer support. There’s your Growth Path, where you do one or more quick activities a day that are designed to lift your mood. Those are things like writing down two things you did well recently, or one small step you can take today towards self-care. There are Group Chats for a variety of topics, including Anxiety, Depression, and LBGTQ+. There are Forums for more than 60 discussion areas, including Psychotherapy and Self Care. My personal favorite, especially for days when I just can’t interact with other people, are the Self-Help Guides, including Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Panic Attacks, and Traumatic Experience. 7 Cups is where I found this video on ACT, which I watch probably at least once a week.

I found another coping method while working with a business mentor and several colleagues. We’ve been working through a book called Finding Your Direction, by Bill Cantrell. Bill uses a workbook when he’s teaching courses on the text. One thing it explores is the roots of our current behaviors – why we do what we do. I realized that a lot of my current behaviors and beliefs were based on what five-year-old me thought and believed.

Five-year-old me thought that if I knew everything, I could do anything. So I undertook to read the encyclopedia. The whole thing. Once I was done, I was certain I could do absolutely anything I would ever want to do, because I knew everything. Until my parents pointed out that there was a world of knowledge that didn’t exist in the encyclopedia. Since I couldn’t know everything, did that mean I couldn’t do anything? I decided that whatever it was I wanted to do, I would have to know everything there was to know about that subject before I could get ready to get started to get going.

That’s carried through to today. I research, and analyze, and refine, and over think before I ever take the first step. But now, I can ask myself a new question about doing all that: why am I letting a five year old determine how I act today? Five year old me had no idea what I would be capable of doing today. (Granted, she could count to two…) She couldn’t possibly have conceived of the technology we have, the opportunities, the industries that didn’t exist back then. So why am I letting her run the show? Same goes with eight year old me who felt like she wasn’t good enough and 11 year old me who decided that since getting all A’s and one B meant being grounded, she had evidence that she wasn’t good enough. While I have compassion for those scared little girls, I’m not letting them run the show any more.

My final coping method came from this article by Jon Morrow. He’s wheelchair-bound and can only move his eyes and lips. But he became a millionaire who’s traveled all over the country, and now lives in a condo in Mexico. After a car accident that left him pinned under his 300 lb. wheelchair with both legs completely shattered, he spent a month in the hospital. While he was there, he made himself say, “Okay, this is my life now. What’s next?”

That’s now written on a Post-It Note stuck to my monitor. You see, in addition to my psychological illnesses, I’m also physically disabled. Nobody knows why, but I can only walk a few feet, or maybe yards on a really good day, unaided before my legs give out. My arms, abs, well, all of my muscles are similarly affected. I have two dozen doctors and take about 30 medications for this and other health issues (including fibromyalgia, asthma, tachycardia, and GERD). Whenever I’m having a rough day health-wise, I can look at that Post-It, think of Jon Morrow, and soldier on.

And now for my two trite truisms – with apologies for the alliteration and triteness both. First: if I can do it, anybody can do it. I’ve sucked at self-care and positivity for most of my life. And I mean really sucked. Not just a little sucking. I’m an overachiever. So if I can make strides like I’ve made recently (I actually complimented myself on something a couple weeks ago!), anybody can.

And second: This, too, shall pass. I spent more than 20 years calling my Daddy to ask him to tell me that before my therapist asked me the obvious question, “Why not ask him to leave it in a voice mail for you?” So now when I’m awake and miserable at 3 a.m., I can hear him telling me, just like he has for years. Every time I play the message, I feel better. Why? Not just because it’s Daddy and he loves me, but because he’s been right every time. This, whatever it is, always passes.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:29 PM on March 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

You know, it's funny the term non-binary comes up. I have a huge amount of self-worth issues, and one thing I discovered that helps me at least is not to think of myself in a binary good or bad way. I may have done THIS wrong, but not THAT.

My own little mantra comes from Whitman. When I have an issue, I repeat the following lines from his Song of Myself to myself -

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

And that reminds me that one issue, one error, one mistake is not the end for me. It is just a part of me, not the whole. I am more than that problem.

It was blind luck I tripped over a reference to that somewhere, and it was sheer serendipity, for me, at least. Maybe keep an eye open and see if you can find that intimate resonance somewhere.

I hope you can.
posted by Samizdata at 10:40 PM on March 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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